Rob Kinnan
Brand Manager, Mustang Monthly
February 1, 1998
Contributers: Keith Davis Photos By: Will Handzel

Step By Step

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The Car: We wanted a fuel-injected car (to stay up with the times, you know), and after not too much searching, we came across a well-used but still-capable ’86 GT hatchback.
It was dead-ass stock (man, what wimp owned this thing?) and had its share of road rash and stains but ran well and didn’t seem to drop any parts on the road during the test drive. We paid $1,700 for it and had no trauma on the drive home.
We found this '86 GT five-speed for $1,700. We wanted an EFI car for numerous reasons, and although this one had a few dents and stains (the passenger door has obviously been replaced and still has a big dent, but we can live with that), the price was right.
The best part about buying a new car is the first time you wash it. Then, it is forever yours!
The passenger-side door has been replaced, which led us to inspect the rocker panels and floorpans for signs of buckling in an accident. We couldn't find anything major, so whatever damage was done was apparently fixed.
The driver-side door had this healthy dent, but it can be dealt with later as funds allow.
Bummer. Pulling the trunk carpet back revealed a flat spare and no jack or lug wrench. We'll have to air up the spare and then scout the junkyard for a jack, or pray that we never get a flat.
Spark-plug wires should never see 100,000 miles, but these did. The first order of business for the engine is new wires, along with spark plugs, cap, rotor, and an oil change. You'd be amazed at what a cheapy tune-up can do for performance.
Leaky valve covers had coated the engine compartment with goo, so we tightened all of the valve-cover bolts. If leakage persists, we'll change the cover gaskets.
To make sure the car drives OK and is safe, we jacked up the front end and checked the ball joints. Put the jack under the lower control arm, and grab the tire on the top and bottom. Wiggle it in and out (top in and bottom out, then top out and bottom in) and check for excessive play. Too much play or clunking noises are sure signs that the ball joint needs to be replaced.
We took off a front wheel and checked out the brake pads and wheel bearings just to see how much was left. There's enough there to last a few thousand miles, so no sweat. The wheel bearings also looked good and had plenty of grease.
We didn't trust the seller when he told us he frequently changed the oil, so we wanted to change it and see just how black the old oil was. Remember, the oil pan has two drain plugs, one in front of the crossmember (see the wrench) and the other behind the crossmember (finger). Remove them both.
The water-temperature gauge didn't work, and the problem turned out to be a bad sender, so we replaced it with a new one that only cost five bucks.
After the tune-up parts were installed (plugs, wires, cap, and rotor), we checked the timing. It was slightly advanced at 10 degrees, so we left it. Under heavy loads, it'll knock with 87 octane gas, but 89 works fine. As the budget gets tighter, we'll probably back it off a few degrees so we can run the cheaper gas.
While it's beyond the capability of the average Joe to check caster and camber at home, toe-in is easy to check with nothing more than a buddy and a tape measure. Pick a spot on the tire tread (for example, the outside edge of the center tread block), and measure the difference between the front of the tire and the rear. If the measurement is greater in the front than the back, the suspension is toe'd out. If the rear measurement is greater than the front, it's toe'd in. Generally, 1/16 inch of toe-in is desirable.
This big, ugly contraption is the silencer. It was designed to appease the accountant-types who demand that their new cars be quiet. It works in that it quiets down the engine's sucking sound, but it also chokes off horsepower, so we removed it. Removal is easy. First, remove the air-inlet hose. Then remove the two nuts that attach the airbox to the inner fender. Remove the three nuts that hold the silencer to the inner fender. Pull the silencer out through the bottom of the fender. Throw out the silencer. Reinstall the airbox and inlet hose.

We remember what it's like to lust after all the cool feature cars and parts shown in magazines but not have the means to afford them. Hell, we're still in that boat. We all fantasize about having a blown, intercooled stroker under our freshly painted 5.0 hood and sending the obscene amounts of power through a set of 18-inch wheels on the way to low 10s in the quarter and IndyCar lap times. But once reality slaps us hard in the face and we realize that we're stuck with what we've got and precious little cash to put into it, it's enough to make us want to cry.

The best thing about 5.0 Mustangs is that they're getting cheaper by the day, and the cost of modifications is also going down thanks to the huge array of parts available, both new and used. So cry no more, as Minimum-Wage Mustang, our latest project-car series, is aimed right at the typical younger reader who doesn't have a million dollars to spend on his car and who must also rely on it for daily transportation. When you only have one car, you can't be tearing it apart to the point that you can't put it back together. You've gotta get to work or school somehow, right?

We're going to show how to build a nice and reasonably fast Mustang without a ton of dough. In fact, the cash outlay is going to be downright miniscule and in line with what a Kwik-E Mart paycheck allows. It's gonna take some time, and it won't be pretty for a while, but it'll be a car that anyone short of Steve Saleen would love to cruise. This is the opening salvo of Minimum-Wage Mustang, wherein we purchase the car and make it better without spending any more dough. We've got plans for the next several months, but let us know what you'd like to see, keeping in mind that the budget is severely limited (about $150 a month), and the car can't be torn apart for more than a weekend. Naturally there is a certain amount of car knowledge involved, but most 5.0 Mustang improvements are simple bolt-on affairs that can be done one at a time by someone who has a basic knowledge of how to drill a hole or turn a bolt. So let's get started.

Plan It

Having a plan is one of the biggest keys to doing the job right. Realistically decide how much you can afford for the car, and how much you can spend on it each month. Don't forget to consider insurance and gas--the world's coolest Mustang won't do you any good if you can't afford to take it out of the driveway. Once you've got the budget figured out, plan the modifications that fit the budget. If there are parts that you just gotta have but they're more expensive than the budget allows, a month or two will have to go by while you save for them.

About that budget. Our fictitious minimum-wage 5.0 owner makes $5.25 for each of the 30 hours he works per week, bringing home a grand total of $510 per month. After calculating income and expenses, we came up with a total of $150.40 a month of disposable income to spend on the car, with a safety cushion built in in case the unexpected breakdown occurs. But first we had to get a car.

"You get what you pay for" does not necessarily hold true in the used-5.0 marketplace. Screaming deals are out there, and good deals are commonplace. After only a couple weeks of searching, we found an '86 GT for a mere $1,700. It's a bit rough around the edges, but it runs like a top and isn't missing any major components, and that's what's important.

After getting the car home, we wanted to make sure that it was in good running condition, was clean, and would be decent to drive, so we made a list of what it needed. On the list went anything we found that needed fixing. Changing the oil and filter was first, since we didn't know how long it had been since they had been changed. The whole car was quite dirty, and since a clean car is a happy car, we gave it a good washing. We blasted the worst of the grunge off at the local carwash, then raided mom's stash of kitchen cleaning supplies.

The carpets were fairly clean, but the seats had some funky spots on them. Spray foam upholstery cleaner got rid of most of them. For the worst spots, we needed to go more heavy-duty; the meanest carpet cleaner we could find was sprayed on and scrubbed until the spots were gone. Spots on the carpet were treated the same way. Plain old 409 was used to clean most of the rest of the interior, as the panels looked like they hadn't been so much as wiped off for years.

Looking underhood, the spark-plug wires were the originals from 1986, and the plugs were a cheesy no-name brand. These were put on the shopping list for this month along with a cap and rotor. There was oil all over the bottom of the car, indicating several oil leaks. Once the engine was clean, we could see that most of it was coming from the valve covers. All of the valve-cover bolts were loose, so we tightened them. The water-bypass hose was not looking too healthy, so that was replaced, too. The plug wires and plugs were removed one by one, and new ones were installed. The fan had a bunch of cracks in it but looked OK for another month.

While under the hood, we wanted to do something to improve the car, not just boring stuff like hoses and plug wires. We knew that there was an air-intake silencer under the airbox and while checking the air filter, we decided to make the silencer go away. The silencer is meant to reduce engine intake noise. The air-intake hole in it is fairly small and butts up against the back of the headlight. This doesn't make for very good airflow into the engine, so we removed it and heaved it into the trash can. Interestingly enough, while removing the silencer, we discovered there was a vacuum hose disconnected at the vacuum reservoir in the fender. When this was reconnected, the A/C and heater controls started working. Cool!

These are the first steps in what is hoped to be a long and pleasant relationship with the minimum-wage Mustang. The car will not be disassembled for longer than a weekend, each modification will make the car more fun to drive and own, and along the way you'll see how easy it can be to build a real car on a real budget. Over the next couple of months the list of things to do will no doubt get longer, but the budget will prevent all of them from happening at once. The plan is to keep improving the car without shooting the whole budget, and to have fun driving it every day. Again, we welcome your suggestions. Eventually, when this is all said and done, we'll have a bitchin' Mustang that hauls ass, yet is rock-solid dependable for daily-driver duty. 5.0